It would have been a stormy day in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, when the ship went down. It was the third century CE; the area was under Roman rule, and the ship’s passenger, a well-off woman from the city, was a Christian.
All that’s left of her today is a gold ring, displayed on Wednesday alongside a hoard of similar treasures – including a trove of third-century Roman coins, a bronze eagle figurine, bells to ward off evil spirits, pottery, and a Roman pantomimus figurine in a comic mask – by the Israeli researchers who discovered them in the waters of the ancient port.
The thick, octagonal piece is set with a green gemstone bearing an etching of a young shepherd boy with a sheep across his shoulders. It’s a picture that’s well-known to scholars of early Christian history: it’s one of the earliest depictions of Jesus his followers were known for, referencing the Biblical allusion of Jesus as “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep.”
Finding it on a ring, however, is rare, explained Helena Sokolov, a curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s coin department. She’s been researching what has become known as “the Good Shepherd ring”.
“[The third century CE] was a period when Christianity was just in its beginning,” she told AFP. “[But it was] definitely growing and developing, especially in mixed cities like Caesarea.”
Although the religion was still practiced “underground” at this point, Sokolov said, the Roman empire was relatively tolerant of other faiths by this point – and Caesarea was something of a local center for Christianity. Other religions still flourished though, and among the other finds were a red gemstone that would have been set in a "Gemma" ring carved with the image of a lyre – the symbol of Apollo in Greek mythology, and known as “David’s Harp” in Jewish tradition.
But amazingly, that’s not all the researchers found in the waters of Caesarea. The objects were found during an underwater survey of two shipwrecks, sunk in the same port but a thousand years apart.
“The ships were probably anchored nearby and were wrecked by a storm,” Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer of the IAA's Marine Archaeology Unit said in a statement sent to IFLScience. “They may have been anchored offshore after getting into difficulty, or fearing stormy weather because sailors know well that mooring in shallow, open water outside of a port is dangerous and prone to disaster.”
Alongside the third century finds, the survey turned up a cache of around 560 14th century coins dating from the Mamluk era – by this point, IAA archaeologist Jacob Sharvit noted, Caesarea was no longer an important cultural hub, and, fearful of European invasions from the sea, the ruling caliphs destroyed many of the region’s ports.
Found a mere 4 meters (13 feet) underwater, the discoveries are a reminder of the long and storied history of the region – and how close to our modern lives the ghosts of the past can still be.
“Israel’s coasts are rich in sites and finds that are immensely important national and international cultural heritage assets,” said IAA director Eli Eskozido. “They are extremely vulnerable, which is why the Israel Antiquities Authority conducts underwater surveys to locate, monitor and salvage any antiquities.”
“We appeal to divers: if you come across an ancient find, take a note of its underwater location, leave it in the sea and report it to us immediately,” he added. “The discovery and documentation of artifacts at their original find spot has tremendous archaeological importance and sometimes even a small find leads to a great discovery.”